Spring Summer 2023: Bolivia

On Friday afternoon, we visit 'Cerro Rico' (rich mountain), Potosí's silver mine. The mine is in a large bare mountain that towers over the town. Inside, the molehill has more holes and tunnels than a Swiss cheese. We thought that this could be a spectacular photo location, but we were wrong. It was mostly one big mess. An adventurous mess, though!

Visiting a mine sounds like a tourist trap, but it actually wasn't. It soon turned out to be bloody serious. With a former miner as our guide, we are the only visitors, in full miner's gear, to enter the active mine. In some places, the pitch-black passageways are one-and-a-half meters high and I keep banging my helmet really hard; in other places, half of the narrow path is a 20-metre shaft going straight down. 'Watch out', the guide says. When I ask how they get down there, he makes some climbing gestures and simply says 'Spiderman!'

Our backpacks are stuffed with bags of coca leaves, beer and liquor. This is meant as payment to the miners we are about to encounter. In a carved hole of about 6 square meters, we and 3 miners honour their self-created god ‘el Tio’. The cave is pitch black and surprisingly warm because of geothermal heat. We pay our respects by sprinkling a makeshift statue with coca leaves and some beer. Then the miners show us how to toast. We have to fill the plastic cap of the 'Puro' we have with us and then drink it in one go. Puro is strong liquor containing 96% alcohol. I have to admit this stuff makes my throat itch a bit.

Our guide, who carried a half-litre can of beer most of the time during our tour through the narrow mine, tells us many stories involving accidents. A good friend of his was hit by a heavy boulder that fell on his stomach. His friends tried to lift it off. When they almost succeeded, the rock fell back onto his body. Then the whole tunnel collapsed. But our guide reassured us: first, you hear smaller stones falling before a big piece of stone comes down. As he tells us all this, we hear and feel the dull bangs of dynamite being set off here and there in the mountain. Until three years ago, our guide used to demonstrate the blasting himself, but this is no longer allowed. Something to do with it being dangerous, I think. When I google the Potosí silver mine again later at home, one of the first hits I get is an article called: "The Liquor-Soaked Devil Shrines of Bolivia's Deadliest Mine".

When we are out of the mine again, we notice all the empty plastic bottles of Puro scattered along the roadside. On the way back, we see unconscious miners lying on the pavements. On Fridays, they drink so much Puro until they pass out. It’s a tradition!

Next, we drive for three days across the salt flats and through the desert in the Andes. We start at 4000 meters and eventually drive up to 5000 meters (just for reference: the highest point in Europe is the Mont Blanc at 4800 meters. Highly-trained mountaineers who climb it go absolutely nuts when they reach the summit. I was eating crips next to the car at 5000 meters. A mixed bag of crisps, that is! One bag contained Doritos, Cheetos, bacon crisps and ready salted all mixed together. Pretty tasty).

Along the way, we see the most beautiful things. On the salt flats, stretching all the way to the horizon, are small 'islands'. These are mountains with normal vegetation protruding from the salt flats. We stop at an island overgrown with the biggest cacti I have ever seen. They are up to 5 meters tall. We have lunch in the desert somewhere near some rocks where wild Chinchillas come to eat potato out of my hand. And we drive past the famous 'Green lake' which is actually grey and the famous 'Red lake' which looks more brown.

Because of the altitude, I felt pretty lousy for five days, battling a splitting headache. It felt like an endless hangover. But hey, the show must go on, so off I went and posed for photos, gritting my teeth. After about three days, though, it really started to wear on me. We spent our last evening on the plateau in a 'salt hotel'. That sounds fancy, but it was like (frozen) hell on earth. I still felt super miserable, it was cold in the double digits minus range and there was no heating of any kind, the walls radiating freezing cold, the shower and water were freezing cold too, and my small freezing room only had a bare single bed with 3 sorts of thick felted carpets on it as a blanket and the food was all Flodder style like 'slap a lacklustre wet mash on your plate and shut up!'. The mindfuck in that kind of situation is that you can't do anything about it, you can only suffer through it and hope for better times.

The last day we drive on up to 5000m altitude. There are some geysers there. My body and breathing can’t cope with it very well. And, of course, I had to change clothes again to walk through the steam of the geyser for a while. It was about 5 degrees and windy. This comes down to a felt temperature of 'good luck with it' degrees. As I stand outside the car in the cold changing my clothes and the crew is watching me in their thick jackets, I notice the look of Elmar the photographer. He knew I felt lousy and that I was struggling. I saw him looking at me the way you look at someone who has just a bad fall with his bike and is bleeding badly from his forehead. You try to look as light-hearted and normal as you can, but deep-down you think: 'Aiiiiii, that guy is a mess’.

Long story short: The shoe factory has gained some more incredible photos and I had a fantastic 'once but never again' adventure. I'll stick to sea level in the future.

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Campaign shoot

Behind the scenes

When we are on the road for our campaigns, we go through a lot. The campaign photos always look amazing, but the reality is somewhat different.... Here are some snapshots we took during our trip. Simply click on them to get more info on what you’re looking at.

Our Bolivia trip